Lev Shestov

All Things Are Possible




The habit of logical thinking kills imagination. Man is convinced that the only way to truth is through logic, and that any departure from this way leads to error and absurdity. The nearer we approach the ultimate questions of existence, in our departure from logicality, the more deadly becomes the state of error we fall into. The Ariadne ball has become all unwound long ago, and man is at the end of the tether. But he does not know, he holds the end of the thread firmly, and marks time with energy on the same spot, imagining his progress, and little realising the ridiculous situation into which he has fallen. How should he realise, considering the innumerable precautions he has taken to prevent himself from losing the logical way? He had better have stayed at home. Once he set out, once he decided to be a Theseus and kill the Minotaur, he should have given himself up, forfeited the old attachment, and been ready never to escape from the labyrinth. True, he would have risked losing Ariadne: and this is why long journeys should be undertaken only after family connections have become a burden. Such being the case, a man deliberately cuts the thread which binds him to hearth and home, so that he may have a legitimate excuse to his conscience for not going back. Philosophy must have nothing in common with logic; philosophy is an art which aims at breaking the logical continuity of argument and bringing man out on the shoreless sea of imagination, the fantastic tides where everything is equally possible and impossible. Certainly it is difficult, given sedentary habits of life, to be a good philosopher. The fact that the fate of philosophy has ever lain in the hands of professors can only be explained by the reluctance of the envious gods to give omniscience to mortals. Whilst stay-at-home persons are searching for truth, the apple will stay on the tree. The business must be undertaken by homeless adventurers, born nomads, to whom ubi bene ibi patria. It seems to me that but for his family and his domesticity, Count Tolstoy, who lives to such a ripe old age, might have told us a great many important and interesting things… Or, perhaps, had he not married, like Nietzsche he would have gone mad. “If you turn to the right, you will marry, if to the left, you will be killed.” A true philosopher never chooses the middle course; he needs no riches, he does not know what to do with money. But whether he turns to the right or to the left, nothing pleasant awaits him.


Socrates and Plato tried to determine under the shifting change of appearance the immutable, unchanging reality. In the Platonic “ideas” the attempt was incarnated. The visible reality, never true to itself, assuming numberless varying forms, this is not the genuine reality. That which is real must be constant. Hence the ideas of objects are real, and the objects themselves are fictitious. Thus the root of the Platonic philosophy appears to be a fundamental defect in human reasoning a defect regarded as the highest merit. It is difficult for the philosopher to get a good grasp of this agitated, capricious life, and so he decides that it is not life at all, but a figment. Dialectics is supreme only over general concepts and the general concepts are promoted to an ideal. Since Plato and Socrates, only such philosophers have succeeded largely who have taught that the unchangeable is preferable to the changeable, the eternal to the temporal. The ordinary individual, who lives unconsciously, never reckoning his spiritual credit against his spiritual debit, naturally regards the philosopher as his legitimate book-keeper, keeper of the soul’s accounts. Already in Greece the Athenian youth watched with passionate interest the dexterity which Socrates displayed in his endeavour to restore by means of dialectics the lost “ultimate foundations” of human conduct.

Now in book-keeping, as we are aware, not a single farthing must disappear untraceably. Socrates was trying to come up to expectations. The balance between man’s spiritual assets and liabilities was with him ideally established. Perhaps in this lies the secret of that strange attraction he exerted even over such volatile and unsteady natures as that of Alcibiades, drawing the young men to him so that they were attached to him with all their soul. Alcibiades had long since lost all count of his spiritual estate, and therefore from time to time he had need to recourse to Socrates, who by speeches and dissertations could bring order into chaos and harmony into the spiritual confusion of his young friend. Alcibiades turned to Socrates to be relieved. Of course, he sought relief in order that he might begin again his riotous living: rest is so sweet to a tired man. But to conclude that because Alcibiades exhausted himself, and because rest is sweet, therefore all men must rest, this is absurd. Yet Socrates dictated this conclusion, in all his ideas. He wished that all men should rest, rest through eternity, that they should see their highest fulfillment in this resting.

It is easier to judge of Socrates since we have Count Tolstoy with us. Probably the physiognomist Topir would say of Tolstoy as he said of Socrates, that there are many evil propensities lurking in him. Topir is not here to speak, but Tolstoy has told us himself how wicked he found his own nature, how he had to struggle with it. Tolstoy is not naturally overcourageous; by long effort he has trained himself to be bold. How afraid of death he was in his youth. And how cleverly he could conceal that fear. Later on, in mature age, it was still the fear of death which inspired him to write his confession. He was conquering that fear, and with it all other fears. For he felt that, since fear is very difficult to master in oneself, man must be a much higher being when he has learned not to be afraid any more. Meanwhile, who knows? Perhaps “cowardice,” that miserable, despicable, much-abused weakness of the underworld, is not such a vice after all. Perhaps it is even a virtue. Think of Dostoevsky and his heroes, think of Hamlet. If the underworld man in us were afraid of nothing, if Hamlet was naturally a gladiator, then we should have neither tragic poetry nor philosophy.

It is a platitude, that fear of death has been the inspiration of philosophers. Numberless quotations could be drawn from ancient and modern writers, if they were necessary. Maybe the poetic daemon of Socrates, which made him wise, was only fear personified. Or perhaps it was his dark dreams. That which troubled him by day did not quit him by night. Even after the sentence of death Socrates dreamed that he ought to engage in the arts, so in order not to provoke the gods he began to compose verses, at the age of seventy. Tolstoy also at the age of fifty began to perform good deeds, to which performance he had previously given not the slightest attention. If it were our custom nowadays to express ourselves mythologically, we should no doubt hear Tolstoy telling us about his daemon or his dreams. Instead he squares his accounts with science and morality, in place of gods or demons. Many a present-day Alcibiades, who laves all the week in the muddy waters of life, comes on Sundays to cleanse himself in the pure stream of Tolstovian ideas. Book-keeping is satisfied with this modest success, and assumes that if it commands universal attention one day in the week, then obviously it is the sum and essence of life, beyond which man needs nothing. On the same grounds the keepers of public baths could argue that, since so many people come to them on Saturdays, therefore cleanliness is the highest ambition of man, and during the week no one should stir at all, lest he sweat or soil himself.


Moral people are the most revengeful of mankind, they employ their morality as the best and most subtle weapon of vengeance. They are not satisfied with simply despising and condemning their neighbour themselves, they want the condemnation to be universal and supreme: that is, that all men should rise as one against the condemned, and that even the offender’s own conscience shall be against him. Then only are they fully satisfied and reassured. Nothing on earth but morality could lead to such wonderful results.

Posted: August 2018
Category: Essays